The holiday season is here, a time when most Americans focus on practicing goodwill toward each other. Oftentimes during the span from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day, there is an emphasis on helping those in need. This is wonderful, but why is it that we tend to focus on service and helping others during this six-week stretch, yet not year-round?
Dave Kleinknecht is director of Hope for L.A., a ministry of Pacific Crossroads Church that operates as a volunteer mobilization organization to serve the City of Angels' poor and marginalized. Kleinknecht, whose parents were part of an inner-city ministry, relocated from New York City to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California before joining Hope for L.A. in 2008. "I am really intrigued by big cities and how they care for their people," he told me. While appearing on the PBS-SoCaL program Studio SoCaL, he shared that his organization "want(s) to make service a regular part of people's lives." This is a simple statement, yet so profound. In an era in which we have a polarized country with political parties that cannot agree on much, there are many societal problems that can be addressed and/or improved upon if we, as Americans, all commit to service on a regular basis. Therefore, this piece provides, in no particular order and with no intention of being all-encompassing, six volunteer and service ideas for the holidays and beyond. The third idea applies only to the holiday season, while the others can be done year-round.
1. Help those living in shelters. Kleinknecht shared with me many ways to help people living in shelters, such as prepping and serving meals, and volunteering at shelters to make them more warm, welcoming, and hospitable places. "Community goes a long way. Providing a stable relationship for somebody who's in and out of transitional shelters or in transition is really needed," he added. Additionally, as is the case with the youth (see #2), adults often need job skills and training assistance.
2. Assist aspiring college students and those new to the workforce. There are numerous opportunities to help young people who aspire to go to college or find employment, such as providing Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) training, assistance with college applications and personal statements and job interview training. "You can really help a kid by giving them a mock interview before they go into a real interview," Kleinknecht said. He added that FAFSA application assistance is especially helpful for those from families in poverty or those from families in which no members have previously attended college, stressing that students can feel more connected if they have mentors around them. Organizations such as Cloud and Fire Ministries help young people find their career paths.
3. Sing holiday carols. Kleinknecht discussed the work he does at an adult transitional shelter in Santa Monica in which volunteers serve ice cream twice a month. In December, volunteers work at a Christmas party, distributing gift bags and joining residents in singing Christmas carols. "It gives people like the musician who is providing the music a unique opportunity to use his gifts to engage a community of people who are potentially discouraged. It lifts their spirits to be able to sing, to hear their own voice, hear the voices of the residents they live with that they probably have never sung with before," he stated. "There are unique opportunities around the holidays like that."
4. Read to kids at a local school. One can truly make a difference in a child's life by providing literacy training. Kleinknecht explained that contributing to an increased literacy experience can be especially helpful for those learning English who may not speak English at home with their parents. The Minnesota Literacy Council offers opportunities to volunteer with literacy programs for both children and adults.
5. Be there for a foster child. There are many ways to assist foster youth, from providing mentoring once a week, to getting to know a foster team at a local ministry, to providing respite care for foster parents. One can receive certification to accommodate foster kids for a couple nights to give foster parents a break. Additionally, one can become a Court Appointed Special Advocate for Foster Youth, register their family as a safe family or become a foster parent.
6. Assist seniors. Organizations such Orange County, Calif.-based Silver Streak Transportation provide transportation services to adults ages 60 and older who are unable to drive (or unable to drive long distances). Volunteers assist seniors by driving them to medical appointments and grocery stores. Social activist Shandell Maxwell suggested teaching seniors Internet skills, citing the acclaimed documentary Cyber-Seniors.
There are many more opportunities, such as helping distribute toys at rescue centers, fostering animals, volunteering with the Special Olympics and assisting with the Syrian refugee crisis. The point, as explained in Brad Formsma's book I Like Giving, is that we have the power to transform ourselves and our world through the act of serving those in need.
What are some service opportunities that you suggest? Please comment below or tweet me your thoughts.